Back when I was a scoutmaster teaching my scouts about first aid, I would ask them, “What’s the first thing you do when you encounter an injured person?” Most boys would respond with “call 911” or something along the lines of asking the individual what hurts.
I see things a little differently. I told them that before they do anything else they must assess the environment and ensure that whatever incapacitated the patient doesn’t have the chance to do the same to them. There could be any number of factors that contributed to the crisis, ranging from live electrical lines to noxious fumes.
It’s the latter that people must now be especially attentive to. First responders are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers that can befall innocent victims — secondhand death, if you will — when it comes to something called chemical suicide.
Under this means of taking one’s life, the person creates a chemical mixture — most of the time hydrogen sulfide — using common household chemicals like toilet bowl cleaner or insecticide. The mixture is then inhaled at high concentrations. The victim is instantly overcome, the invisible killer destroying his lungs. At lower concentrations, death is slow and painful as the victim suffocates to death, which is why nearly all of these suicides occur in a relatively-enclosed area like a car or a closet to maximize the amount of the chemicals within the air, ensuring the expediency of death.
Chemical suicide has been popular in Japan, where more than 2,000 people have killed themselves with this method since 2008, due to its certainty, ease and lack of trauma. Due to social networks and other things of the Internet (including numerous “how-to” manuals), that wave has spread to the United States where it is gaining more exposure and use, especially by people under the age of 25. According to a recent report by the New York Times, the number of documented chemical suicides in the U.S. was 36 last year. So far, the number is nearly 30 and it’s certain to rise as word spreads.
Japan’s interest in this method, setting up the perfect storm for mainstream use in the U.S., has police, fire and ambulance personnel concerned for their safety and that of innocent bystanders. That’s because chemical suicide can easily become chemical murder. The same fumes that killed the suicidal person can kill or seriously harm the first person on the scene, whether it’s a family member checking on a non-responsive son or daughter, a Good Samaritan investigating someone passed out in a car, or a deputy tending to either of those circumstances. Even just simply venting the fumes to the air by opening a car door in a wide-open parking lot can knock you to the ground and cause seizure, delirium or coma.
This can happen anywhere, from big cities to small towns, with varying secondary effects. A 23-year-old woman took her life in the Hollywood Hills last month, depressed from the lack of job opportunities. Luckily, she left a note on the outside of the car alerting others to the chemical dangers within. That wasn’t the case in the small town of Stillwater, located in the Adirondacks. Two weeks ago, an 18-year-old committed chemical suicide in his car with no such warning. The two police officers first on the scene were treated for exposure to the fumes. Luckily they didn’t meet the same fate as the young man.
The Stillwater scenario is more the norm than an exception. National statistics show that 80 percent of first responders receive hospitalization for exposure in cases of chemical suicide. In one extreme case in Japan, a teen’s suicide sickened 90 people in her neighborhood. Those large numbers should highlight the danger that can befall those whose health and lives were supposed to be unaffected by the chemicals.
So, my lesson to you is the same as it was to the Boy Scouts: Before tending to an incapacitated person (especially in a car and if that person has showed signs of depression), be careful. That person’s suicide could also be your murder.